Saving Columbia River Salmon:
by Steven Hawley
If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then for many Oregonians it was probably nothing short of bizarre to peruse the recent commentary on the fate of salmon penned by conservative Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington and progressive Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon ("Time to get out of the courtroom and into the river," March 11).
Hastings is a high priest in the growing chapel of conservatives who preach that government is the problem. DeFazio, to the contrary, has staked his career on the belief that good government is the cornerstone of a civil society. He's defended public lands, sponsored wilderness bills and fought for abortion, labor and consumer protection rights.
Both congressmen have sat on the House subcommittee on water and power, which holds much sway in the debate over the future of salmon. At a glance, you'd expect their respective leadership on this issue to be as different as night and day. In fact, Hastings is poised to lord over this committee in much the same fashion as DeFazio did: as a loyal ally of hydropower. Those allies might assert that making common cause across such a broad ideological spectrum must point to some kind of irrefutable political wisdom. But that's not the whole story.
The new age of salmon cooperation among states, tribes and federal agencies was not forged through the hard work of negotiation, but with the BPA's checkbook. What the agency bought was consensus, but also leverage to coerce silence. For tribes that didn't sign on to the BPA's fish "accords," all they got was a bitter replay of the kind of injustice with which they're all too familiar. They were reminded in no uncertain terms that the BPA holds the purse strings to fish and wildlife projects near and dear to them.
Tribes signing the deal had to rescind their arguments for the plaintiffs in the case still before federal Judge James Redden, agree to support whatever biological opinion the federal agencies came up with, sit in the federal cheering section in court and keep their mouths shut about removing Snake River dams.
While it's true that more than 10,000 wild fall chinook returned to the upper Snake last year, salmon have been down so long that anything short of flirting with extinction looks like up. The recovery goal for this species is 39,000 fish, a target that would have to be reached several years in a row to get them de-listed under the Endangered Species Act. That we've managed to get only a quarter of the way to recovery with this species is probably something more to be relieved about than to celebrate. Moreover, the recent bump in returns has much to do with the court-ordered spill program, which the two congressmen insinuate may have to be scrapped due to cost.
Therein lies the most offensive assertions put forth by Hastings and DeFazio. It's simply not true that water spilled over dams for fish translates into power generation that has to be made up by fossil fuels. In the short term, the region is sitting on a surplus of wind and hydropower. In the long term, enough can be accomplished through efficiency and conservation measures that not only could our long-term energy needs be met, but removing a few dams on the Snake could be accomplished without replacing the lost power with new generating plants. This news comes not from environmental groups, but from the agency responsible for recommending power plans and fish recovery measures to the BPA.
In the meantime, the cost of spill is calculated with a magical formula known as "forgone revenue." The BPA arrives at this number by assuming it owns all the water in the river, then charges the salmon recovery program for water that goes downstream without spinning a turbine. This surcharge amounts to half of what the agency claims it spends on fish. This accounting methodology exists nowhere else in natural resource economics. Imagine billing the Forest Service for the trees it didn't cut down.
Why all this sleight of hand? One clue might be had in the 20-year contracts BPA is signing with six corporate utility companies. The subsidy paid by taxpayers and residential ratepayers over the life of these contracts: $4 billion. These same corporations are fond of printing a line item on your monthly electric bill that informs you of the portion of your payment going to salmon recovery. Never listed or discussed is what you're spending to deliver public wealth -- in the form of dams, water and salmon -- into private hands. That doesn't much seem like a cause that a good-government Democrat like DeFazio could support.
Nonetheless, support it he does. The conventional wisdom on salmon in 2008 seems like the status quo thinking on timber in 1988. Back then, key players in the Northwest congressional delegation assumed the abuses of the timber industry were an ugly but necessary undertaking that kept the regional economy humming. Somewhat diminished 20 years later, the timber industry has been forced to clean up its act. But the overall economy didn't collapse. It got much healthier. A loosening of the BPA's stranglehold on the region's energy supply might lead to a similarly healthy diversification, including full recovery of endangered salmon.
If DeFazio decided it was time to fight on this issue, he'd face an uphill battle. To win, he'd probably have to appeal to the majority of regional citizens and his fellow congressmen who don't know or care what the word anadromous means. Here's a possible point of entry: Make it a fight not just about fish, but about the debilitating influence of money over good government. Make it clear that our responsibility to the salmon as a species also covers our responsibilities to one another.
The alternative to this good fight is quite stark: It will mean that no matter how Judge Redden rules, we'll still be a long way from salmon recovery -- and even further from making key decisions based not only on the best available science, but the best available politics.
Boofalo comments March 21 at 12:02am:
However it is completely ridiculous to spend billions of dollars, tie up entire rivers and waterways, trample property rights, and wreck commerce just to give some silly fish a "playground". If you want fish, raise the stupid things in tanks or on farms.
If every Salmon suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, nothing would change. Life would still go on as usual.
All this fuss over a dumb fish is ludicrous. I think society has totally lost it's freakin' marbles.
Frankenfish Phobia by Timothy Egan, New York Times, 3/17/11
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